"Flight" And Its Depiction of Addiction and Redemption
In a career spanning over three decades, director Robert Zemeckis has wowed audiences with time-traveling adventures, historical epics, thrillers, and technologically innovative animation. His new film “Flight,” about the suspenseful crash landing of a commercial airplane and the subsequent aftermath, advertises itself as an exciting drama starring Denzel Washington, one of the few bankable leading men today who attracts theatergoers while receiving acclaim from critics. However, the film itself is a complex character study on addiction and the internal struggle to fight temptation.
From the “Flight” trailer, we witness the exhilarating rapid descent of an airplane towards the ground and the efforts of Washington’s character to land the plane safely. We learn that the plane crashes with minimal loss of life but the pilot may have been partially at fault due to evidence of intoxication in his system that day. Despite being branded a hero by the media, the sympathy of Washington’s character by audiences may not be so cut and dry. There is no doubt that Zemeckis’s resume proves him to be a filmmaker that successfully pushes innovation in visual technology. The “Back to the Future” trilogy, “Death Becomes Her,” and “Contact” are terrific examples of state-of-the-art visual effects. Upon release in 1994, “Forrest Gump” obtained a lot of attention and praise towards Zemeckis’s ability to seamlessly plant a fictional character into iconic footage from the 1960s and 1970s. After three CGI-heavy animated films, “Flight” is Zemeckis’s first live-action film in 12 years. However, his talents in visual excitement are used up in the dramatic crash within the first 20 minutes of the film. What follows is an excellent depiction of addiction and the complex themes of morality and redemption.
Washington stars as Captain ‘Whip’ Whitaker, a veteran commercial airline pilot who hides his addiction from his superiors and co-workers. His alcoholism most likely contributed to the break-up of his marriage to Deana (Garcelle Beauvais) and the estrangement from his teenage son Will (Justin Martin). As far as his co-workers are concerned, many are aware of Whip’s history of excessive drinking but look away as long as they don’t believe it’s affecting his responsibilities as a pilot. On the morning of the crash, Whip awakens in a hotel room in Orlando after a night of boozing with his girlfriend Katerina Marquez (Nadine Velazquez), who’s also a stewardess for the airline. Hung over and still intoxicated from the night before, Whip does a line of cocaine on the nightstand next to his bed for a quick ‘pick-me-up’ and is off to the airport to pilot a short flight to Atlanta.
Whip’s co-pilot for the flight is Ken Evans (Brian Geraghty), who has never flown with him before but Evans immediately becomes suspicious that the captain is not in the best condition to fly the jet. As they take off in the cloudy and rainy weather, the plane endures some rocky turbulence until they make it to a clearing in the clouds. Once the plane is settled and on autopilot, Whitaker makes his routine announcement to the passengers, all the while cracking open some miniature bottles of vodka and pouring them into his orange juice and later takes a nap in the cockpit. As the plane is nearing its point of final descent, Whitaker is awaken from a violent thrust and a loud mechanical noise. As the plane takes a steep dive, he and Evans are unable to manually control the stabilization of the plane. Through quick thinking, Whitaker immediately begins to ‘roll the plane’ (fly it in an inverted position) to bring it out of the dive. He dumps the fuel and as the plane is nearing the earth, he steers it to an open, un-populated area and glides the plane until is crashes in an open field. The collision immediately knocks Whitaker unconscious and is later awakened in a hospital room. It should be noted that despite alcohol and cocaine being in his system, Whitaker’s command of the plane as it is descending is completely calm and collecting. He makes sharp decisions and speedy commands to his co-pilot. While Evans remains in a state of panic while trying to control the plane, Whitaker appears as if he knows exactly what he is doing in order to land safely.
Whitaker awakens in a hospital and is greeted by long-time pal and fellow pilot Charlie Anderson (Bruce Greenwood), who is now a representative for the pilots’ union. The doctor informs Whitaker that he is banged up but in good condition given the circumstance and will only be in the hospital for a few days. Whitaker is also greeted by members of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), asking him what he remembers as well as informing him of the investigation into the nature of the crash. What Whitaker also learns is that of the 102 “souls” on the plane, six perished: four passengers and two crewmembers, including Marquez. That night, Whitaker sneaks out of his hospital room for a quick smoke in the stairwell. There, he meets Nicole (Kelly Reilly) who is in the hospital because of a heroin overdose. Over the course of the day leading up to the crash, Nicole is introduced as a drug-addicted prostitute. After scoring some high-grade heroin from her porn-producer dealer, she promises to only smoke it. As she returns to her apartment, her building manager threatens to kick her out due to skipping of the rent. Frustrated and depressed, Nicole decides to inject the heroin for a more powerful “relief” for all of her problems. It is too much and she becomes unconscious. Upon recovery, Nicole meets Whitaker in the stairwell and the two have a brief exchange. After a cancer patient joins them and offers his perspective of “God’s plan” for his condition, Whitaker promises to visit Nicole once he is out of the hospital. Recognizing someone else coping with an addiction, Whitaker takes a liking to Nicole and casts her as a new friend who might be able to understand the internal struggles he goes through.
The following morning, Whitaker is visited by his friend /dealer Harling Mays (John Goodman) who informs Whitaker of all of the media attention regarding the crash. The following day, Whitaker is allowed to leave the hospital and on the way home, Mays offers Whitaker a beer but he immediately declines. The crash and the days in the hospital has been a sobering time for Whitaker to reflect on his addiction and his physical state that day that resulted in the loss of life. Instead of going back to his condo where the media is camped out, Whitaker is taken back to the rural farm owned by his grandfather who earned a living as a crop duster. In this moment, Whitaker has a moment of clarity as to how substance abuse has affected his life, his personal relationships, and his profession. He immediately takes every bottle of liquor and case of beer stashed in the house and pours them down the drain. Here, Whitaker begins a temporary road to redemption in the eyes of the audience. The beginning of the film paints Whitaker as a reckless abuser who ingests cocaine the morning of a flight and downs vodka while on duty. He is responsible for a hundred lives on each flight and has allowed his addiction to interfere with his job. It is unknown how often Whitaker was not sober while flying, but his addiction had convinced himself that he can perform the duties of his job while intoxicated due to no prior incidents.
Whitaker meets with Charlie and attorney Hugh Lang (Don Cheadle) for breakfast at a hotel. He learns that while he was in the hospital, a toxicology screening was performed for the NTSB and found that cocaine and alcohol was in his system during the flight. Whitaker becomes defensive, stating he had a few drinks the night before and that pilot error played no role in the crash but due to a malfunctioning plane. He argues that it was his talents as a pilot that landed the plan with minimal casualties. While the media has branded Whitaker a “hero pilot,” he learns that he could not only lose his pilot’s license but also serve time in jail on manslaughter charges. Lang believes he can convince the NTSB to disregard the test results as admissible evidence in court. Whitaker feels overwhelmed upon news of the investigation, excuses himself, retreats to the hotel bar, falling off the wagon and returns to his vices. Remembering where Nicole told him where she lived, Whitaker pays her a visit but witnesses her being evicted from her apartment. With nowhere to go, Whitaker offers to let her stay at his farm. The two develop a romantic relationship while Whitaker continues drinking due to the stress of the investigation. Nicole tries to better herself and begins attending AA meetings. Whitaker dismisses any attempt by her to sober up and ultimately drives her away.
In a drunken stupor, Whitaker visits his estranged ex-wife and son but is soon kicked out and escorted by the police while the media has finally caught up with the “hero pilot,” unaware of his substance abuse. With the preliminary NTSB hearing approaching, Charlie attempts to get him clean by forcing him to quit alcohol and prepare to defend himself. It isn’t until the night before the hearing that Whitaker has to face one last temptation that could determine his fate as a pilot and as a free man.
As previously stated, Zemeckis has established himself as a visual director and proved to make crowd-pleasing films about the human spirit. The characters Tom Hanks in “Cast Away” and Jodie Foster in “Contact” played defied opposition to reach their goal. Washington’s character continually regressed throughout most of the film despite those around him trying to rescue him. This is new ground for Zemeckis but still succeeds in getting the audience to root for redemption, no matter how low Whitaker digs himself. In a video interview with the New York Times, Zemeckis describes his approach to this film and this character:
“I don’t see it as a problem because of the chemicals he was using. I see the picture as the drug and alcohol abuse being the symptom as a bigger problem. I see it as a story of human brokenness. I mean the fact that everyone is walking around imperfect and how we deal with that issue. What I thought was challenging and different and what I wanted to explore with this film was this very complex idea that was in the screenplay, which is there is a moral ambiguity to everything, all the characters, all the situations. Nothing was completely all good or all black or all white or all evil, everything was a shade of grey, and I never read anything like that and I thought this was a worthy piece to go forward on.”
Throughout most of the film, it is difficult as an audience member to sympathize with Washington’s character. When Whitaker takes up residence at his grandfather’s farm after the crash and immediately dumps all the alcohol, it’s a good sign, though temporarily, that Whitaker is actively trying to better himself. Unfortunately, cold turkey sobriety isn’t that easy for addicts. We are forced to witness the ups and downs of Captain Whitaker. As an acting achievement, this marks one of Washington’s best on-screen portrayals because we keep rooting for his redemption. He is an imperfect character who makes mistakes and continues to make mistakes while others are trying to help him. In the end, Whitaker ultimately achieves a sense of redemption, but the film doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending.